Though I’ve been a fan of both Jake Robertson (Ausmuteants, Alien Nosejob) and Carolyn Hawkins’ (Chook Race) individual projects, they’re often at their best when they come together as School Damage. The band embraces a raw, yet catchy form of post-punk that finds a through line from Young Marble Giants to Wire and Television Personalities. The two songwriters balance each other out in their reach for grit vs hook, so with that in mind Jake and Carolyn team up for a joint pick in Hidden Gems. The pair both harbor a love for Tommy Jay’s Tall Tales of Truama, aMidwest lo-fi treasure that’s sure to have eluded most.
Jake and Carolyn sum up their pick, “Our ‘hidden gem’ is Tommy Jay’s ‘Tall Tales of Trauma’ which was originally self-released on cassette in 1986, but includes recordings from as early as 1974. Thankfully it is much less ‘hidden’ these days due in large part to labels such as Columbus Discount and Assophon who have since released the album on vinyl. I guess it could be described as DIY psych-folk, heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. The recordings are low-fi home recordings, featuring collaborations with various members of the Columbus underground. The mood is melancholy and dream-like, nostalgic and haunting.”
As to how this nugget of the Columbus undercrust found its way to a couple of Aussies, Jake reveals, “In 2011 I was living in Geelong, Victoria and would frequently travel to Melbourne to go to gigs and record stores. I soon became friends with John and Mitch from Wooly Bully, a little store in North Melbourne that sold records and comic books. I ended up sleeping on their couch a couple of nights a week and they opened me up to a world of new music, including Tommy Jay.” For Carolyn, her introduction came through her bandmate, “ I’m pretty sure Jake played this to me off his iPod a few years after he heard it (it took us ages to get our hands on the actual records), and feeling almost annoyed that he hadn’t thought to play this to me earlier, because it was just everything I loved – like Neil Young and Velvet Underground and, like, R Stevie Moore or something all mixed into one.”
The pair expands on how this under sung record fits the buried treasure bill, “There’s some obvious bangers and then other songs that creep up on you. His cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Dreamland’ just got absolutely thrashed in our house. We love that there are no real drums on this record – just heaps of percussion. The melodies of ‘I Was There’, ‘Fear of Shadows’ and the previously unreleased ‘Kristine-O’ (off the bonus material side on the Assophon reissue) are just as unforgettable and have probably made their way into a School Damage song somewhere along the line. There’s also just so many great moments of noodly guitar, flute melodies, autoharp, ‘bells’ and other percussion, which no doubt has a lot to do with the many guest appearances from Tommy Jay’s friends that appear on the record.”
Carolyn continues, “I heard ‘Memories’ as I was trying to figure out how to write and record my own songs, and the song was almost painful in its simplicity – probably just recorded as two tracks: one for simultaneous keyboard/keyboard drum track, and another for vocals. It was a bit of a lightbulb moment in terms of how I could make music – these things weren’t obvious at the time. The song is full of sorrow and nostalgia, as is much of the album, and I think I definitely tried to emulate this (probably unsuccessfully) in early School Damage songs.” While both agree, “School Damage may not sound really anything like Tommy Jay in terms of the songs, but in terms of the recording quality on our first album I think we were really aiming for a similarly warbly 4-track bedroom quality – Tall Tales sounds like it has been recorded from inside someone’s (slightly terrifying) dream. We came across a quote from an interview Mike Rep (Tommy Jay’s long-term collaborator, who also ‘lovingly fucked with’ Tall Tales) did with Pop Matters in 2011 when we were thinking about what to say for this piece, and he puts it better than either of us could: “Our recordings from back then usually had lots of sound saturation…It’s just a matter of whether or not the listener likes the radio un-friendly frequencies, the distortion, etc. It’s like the difference between trained painters who strictly use canvas, and folksy artists who paint on wood or other non-conformist mediums.”
Summing up their love for this forgotten gem, the pair digress, “I think both of us were drawn into the world of Tommy Jay and his Columbus friends through this album, and it led us to other related artists and releases: the Grim-O-Comix Sequence (album by Tommy Jay and Mike Rep), Mike Rep and the Quotas, Nudge Squidfish, True Believers, Ego Summit, and the General. But there is also an indefinable intimacy in Tall Tales: the four-track seems to let in more than just the music being recorded, and the liner notes (as well as song lyrics) mention the names of friends, local places, in-jokes. You get a sense that you’re peering into a private world: a bunch of friends living in the suburbs mucking around and recording songs in someone’s basement. It’s funny that we should think this is so magical – they’re kind of the exact things that us and our friends do. Maybe that’s just it though: there’s some magic in knowing that there are groups of people doing the same weird things across different times and different places everywhere.”
Thankfully this gem is still available, the Assophon issue is still kicking around for the few and faithful that want to explore its lo-fi charms. As for School Damage, their upcoming LP on Chapter Music is fast approaching and its every bit as essential as their electrifying debut.
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